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Video: Curiosity Mars rover blasts through 'Dingo Gap' sand dune

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NASA's $2.5 billion Curiosity rover has just burst through the 'Dingo Gap' sand dune in an attempt to save wear on its wheels. The impetus for the decision: tears and holes in the rover's wheels, which are made of aluminum. The cause of the problem: jagged rocks in the Gale Crater area where the rover landed.

The news of the accomplishment came in a rather unconventional way, via Twitter, with the message that “I’m over the moon that I’m over the dune! I successfully crossed the “Dingo Gap.” The tweet came late last week.

Now, NASA has posted a video of the potentially-dangerous maneuver.

For the record, the sand dune Curiosity crossed last week was about 3 feet high, which prompted a lot of concerns among mission control personnel because a similar situation doomed the Spirit rover after it got stuck in sand back in 2009.

However, NASA was between a rock and a hard place with the rover. Why? For starters, if Curiosity had stayed on its current course, there was no guarantee that the rover's wheels wouldn't become damaged to the point wherein the rover couldn't move, which would effectively doom the mission. On the other hand, making it through the dune was a gamble, too, as there was no guarantee that the rover wouldn't get stuck. The initial discovery of the problem came by way of cameras on the rover, which showed jagged holes in the wheels caused by sharp rocks. In the end, NASA decided to take a calculated risk and drive through the dune, a maneuver that proved successful.

My take: for the 2020 Mars rover, stronger wheels should be on the list of upgrades.

For NASA, Curiosity represents the next generation of Mars rovers, serving as a successor to Spirit and Opportunity (landed 2004), which served as successors to Sojourner(landed 1997). Curiosity is due to land in August, 2012, during which it will attempt to discover whether Mars ever was home to/was once suitable for life. The 8 main objectives of the mission are as follows:

1. Determine the nature/amount of organic compounds
2. Identify the building blocks of life as we know it
3. Look for traces of past life
4. Investigate Martian geology
5. Discover how rocks/soils were formed
6. Assess atmospheric evolution
7. Try and understand the current water cycle
8. Identify the surface radiation from the Sun

In terms of what the rover has to offer, it is truly ambitious.

To start with, the rover will be powered nuclear, rather than solar energy like its predecessors, which means that Curiosity will be able to operate year-round. The rover will carry 3 cameras, a laser several spectrometers, a sampling tool, a radiation detector, atmospheric assessment tools, water detector, as well as navigation cameras designed to help the rover act autonomously by helping it avoid hazards on the Martian surface.

For NASA, there is a lot riding on Curiosity, far more tan the mission itself. For starters, Curiosity is set to be the last flagship missionfor the foreseeable future as these most ambitious missions, commonly costing over $1 billion, have been eliminated from NASA's future plans thanks to extensive budget cutsHowever, there is hope within NASA that a successful mission may spur the public to be more interested in planetary science. The hope: greater public support in planetary exploration will spur Congress to allocate more funding for NASA, which has seen its planetary science budget drastically cut in in recent years in a trend that will continue, in all probability, for the next decade or so.

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